It's midnight and the road to the nightclub is long and flooded in places. Getting to the Castelo das Pedras nightclub, home to "the best funk ball in the city," is taking some time since it's situated in the similarly-sounding Rio das Pedras favela, a community on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.
The taxi driver tells me on the way to the club that I have nothing to worry about. "No need to fret about drug traffickers," he assures me. "That favela is protected by militias," he says, referring to the organized groups of former policemen who take the law into their own hands.
"So, no police?" I ask.
"No. No police there, only militias," he responds.
After that comforting thought, the taxi driver leaves me at the entrance of the club where I join the queue of teenagers and 20-somethings decked out for a hot-and-heavy night of funk carioca.
The dress code? Minimal. Clothes only impede the grinding and squatting moves that funk dancing demands.
The Castelo das Pedras nightclub is a superclub of its kind, hosting one of Rio's most famous "funk balls."
It's just ghetto enough for the rich kids from the city's upscale southern zone to get a flavor of the favela, yet mainstream enough to broadcast its balls on cable TV without the violence or other murky associations that have given the funk balls such a bad rap.
Funk balls aren't all alike. There are different genres, and the parties at the Castelo das Pedras are in the spirit of fun and commerce. They attract a mixed crowd: glamour girls and rude boys, all out to dance and flirt in the club's dark, sweaty surroundings.
"I came here tonight because I'm looking for the real Rio," says Luis, who's on vacation from Spain. "This is not fake; it's the real thing."
Luis is among a group of chic partygoers from Rio's southern zone, bored of the more stylish clubs and looking for something more down and dirty.
And it does get dirty. Funk carioca has come under a lot of fire for depicting women as sex objects. For example, one "MC big" on the scene at the moment is MC Creu. The word "creu" itself refers to a sexual act. His songs center on thinly veiled innuendo, blatant and often shocking to the uninitiated. But they ignite huge cheers when played in the clubs, everyone squatting and grinding frenetically.
Another point of controversy with the funk carioca scene is the link between underground funk balls and the city's drug traffickers.
The type of funk usually played at these parties is known as "proibidão," which means "forbidden." The proibidão dances started to take off back in the early '90s when drug gangs began taking over favelas.
The shantytown scene is more extreme. The drug gangs such as the Comando Vermelho (The Red Command) and Terceiro Comando (The Third Command) sponsor certain DJs and MCs to eulogize them and promote hate messages toward rival gangs.
The government actually forbids proibidão songs to be broadcast. It's a raw, aggressive style that captures the dangerous and seedy elements of the funk carioca scene.
But Castelo das Pedras's resident DJ — DJ Phabyo — argues that it's more of a protest song than anything else.
"Proibidão is a way of speaking out about the problems in the favela," he says. "It's protesting in a song form, but it's not about causing problems. It's about highlighting the issues that are happening right now in the favelas. It has a consciousness. In truth, there's discrimination against funk. The same thing happened with samba and look at it today."
One frequenter to these underground funk balls tells a different story. "These balls are all bankrolled by drug trafficking," says "J.R.," a partygoer who did not want to use his real name.
"The balls run by the Comando Vermelho are more organized. Outside the area where the ball takes place is completely surrounded by their guys, all armed to the teeth with AK-47s, M-16s and grenades, but weapons are totally forbidden inside," he says, adding, "It's not the case with the balls run by the rival gang [such as] the Terceiro Comando, which is mainly made up of kids who are only 14, 15 and 16 years old. There you have guys carrying weapons inside as well."
And in these balls, the gangs have a marketing ploy: free drugs.
"It's all about the drugs," J.R. says. "Indoors there are 'drug markets,' tables with lines of cocaine — all for free — and guys shouting out their orders: 'Black or white!,' marijuana or cocaine. It's a kind of goodwill effort on the part of the traffickers."
And along with the drugs and the weapons, exploitation of young girls also is part of the scene.
"You see girls as young as 10 years old drugging themselves at these parties and offering themselves to the big drug dealers as a way of getting security," J.R. says. "And not just the young girls but also rich girls from Rio's southern zone as well, who are totally addicted to coke."
Despite the riotous scenes of the illegal balls, funk carioca has been gaining steam since it successfully crossed over into the mainstream.
In the Rocinha favela complex, the largest and most famous shantytown in all of Brazil, funk matinees are held every Sunday in the local dancehall, Emoções. It's a way of turning the funk ball into a family affair, with parents invited to come and participate.
Carlinhos Santos Roque has been organizing these family-orientated funk parties for a few years.
"Here it's calm. No one will mess with you, as it's protected," Carlinhos says, referring to the gangs that control the favela. "People come here to Rocinha from all over the place, even players from the national soccer team like Ronaldinho. It's important because it makes the community safer."
Critics disagree on what funk carioca really represents for Brazilians' self-image. Some dispute how a heavy beat or a lewd lyric can really change a community for the better, but those actually living in the favelas claim that through funk their voices are being heard.
"Funk came out of the poor communities, just like rap and hip-hop," Carlinhos says. "Poorer people usually make their way out of the ghetto through sport, music or even something illegal. Funk is just one opportunity for people to make something of themselves through music."